By Dr Sarah McGeown
Dr Sarah McGeown is a Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on children’s and adolescents’ reading development, more specifically understanding what motivates them to read, and how to encourage more children and young people to choose to read in school and at home.
Promoting book reading and encouraging young people to read for pleasure is crucial as schools ease back into normality and students, teachers and parents prepare for the school holiday break. While the benefits of books for developing reading and language skills are well documented, books offer so much more for young people during these challenging times, and although many schools have been experiencing the ‘new’ normality for quite some time, due to the previous challenging year, many have a lot of catching up to do, and school holidays are the ideal time to do so.
Books introduce young people to new concepts and ideas; they can immerse them in fictional worlds, and evoke a whole range of emotions. Books also have the potential to develop and challenge thinking, improve empathy skills, perspective taking and social abilities. In our own research with young people we have found that books offer students an opportunity to relax, feel calm, laugh, and experience escapism – all increasingly important during the pandemic and the well-document impact it’s having on mental health. Furthermore, books allow opportunities for students to pursue their interests and learn new things. Each book offers young people a new and unique experience; finding ways to promote and encourage more book reading among young people is essential for both learning and wellbeing.
Why is this Important Now?
It is important to recognise that with schools having closed and online schooling having taken place, many students may be struggling and not receive the same quality of work and learning.
Indeed, times of change and uncertainty can be incredibly unsettling, but they also offer an opportunity to reflect on our current habits and practices and think about positive changes that we would like to make. Focusing on improving young people’s relationships with books has both learning and wellbeing benefits. However, we need to connect young people with books that really resonate with them, and align with their interests and abilities. Despite the wide range of benefits, many teachers often find they struggle to develop a love of book reading among young people. Some who arrive at secondary school have never developed the habit of regular reading, while others have sadly lost it. While some young people report that they simply don’t enjoy reading books, this can stem from poor perceptions of themselves as readers or the absence of positive experiences with books. So how can schools, teachers and families encourage positive reading habits among more young people at this time?
Choice is Important
Research stresses the importance of student choice; therefore it’s important that students have access to a diverse range of books to ensure they can find something that aligns with their reading interests and abilities. However, it is important to appreciate that less experienced readers may need more support to make good reading choices (i.e., those that align with their interests and abilities). For some schools, providing access may be a challenge as pupils at home may not have access to the library, but there are ways to remedy this. Digital books can offer a solution for some. For example, Edtech provider Renaissance Learning, provide a digital library myON, with over 7,000 digitally enhanced books for pupils to access online. Alternatively, many schools have successfully run library ‘pop-ups’ and exchange programmes in a Covid friendly way. You could also use current booklists and reports such as What Kids Are Reading to understand what young people are reading and find out more about these books to see if they can be offered in school or online.
Set Aside Quality Time for Reading
Regardless of the age or stage of the student, implementing a regular time for young people to read for pleasure each day is important, and this practice can begin even while schools remain closed. At secondary school, pupils have to juggle a range of subjects but this also offers the chance for them to explore a range of different texts, genres and topics that are related to their subject areas.
Encouraging regular reading now can be a good way to develop positive reading habits, which can be maintained when schools re-open, with time put aside each week for pupils to read for pleasure. This could even form part of the school’s wellbeing strategy where pupils are encouraged to focus on themselves and find a book that really resonates with them.
Access Books in Different Ways
While many of us are concerned about the increasing amount of time that young people are spending on screens, there are many brilliant digital books online for them to access. Digital books offer the same benefits as physical books and can support young people’s language and literacy development. Alternatively, audiobooks can be an excellent way for young people to relax with a book and may be particularly effective at encouraging less frequent readers. Audiobooks don’t put pressure on a young person to read themselves; they simply get to enjoy the book and all the rich experiences that come with it.
Make it Social
Reading doesn’t always have to be a solitary activity, and while there are possibly more opportunities for discussions about reading in school, discussions can also take place during school holidays. Ways to make reading more social include supporting a student-led book club. This gives students an opportunity to chat about and recommend books to each other, which would work well for those in all year groups. Students should be given an opportunity to decide on the books to discuss, and teachers or librarians can join and lead the discussion, but only if necessary. Regular meetings at a weekly book club with peers allows students to enjoy reading as part of a wider social activity, connect with their friends, and share their own thoughts and experiences of different books. Furthermore, book clubs may also encourage young people to expand the genres they read.
In fact, it is now more important than ever that parents and teachers foster independent reading. For parents who are short on time and juggling numerous responsibilities from work to caring duties, supporting students with their remote learning can be an additional pressure. Developing independent and interested young readers who have access to books and other text types is so important. Doing so provides an opportunity for pupils to self-learn, taking the pressure off parents and setting up pupils with good habits when they return to secondary school.